My experience with various chemistry fora over the years has shown me that there will always be one misguided soul ("kewls" in the parlance of a certain prominent forum) asking about the red goo that keeps turning up in his nitration of phenol, or how to properly use red phosphorus + iodine in his Leuckart reaction. They are of academic interest, of course, but there is also the possibility of fishy dealings behind these questions.

How are we to handle situations like these, in which a question asked seems to display the intent of manufacturing "questionable" (insert your preferred definition here) substances?

  • $\begingroup$ Great, I had just finished penning this exact question. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 6:30

1 Answer 1


My personal thoughts (I am not a lawyer, medical doctor or whatever):

Questions with obvious or stated nefarious intent

Such as clandestine manufacture of explosives, chemical weapons or generally illicit substances should probably be prohibited. This means syntheses that eschew scheduled precursors, jury-rigging apparatuses for these syntheses and questions about detectability and deniability. If you have a legitimate need and legal ability to do any of this, you probably don't need to ask questions on SE.

Questions about working with scheduled substances

There are many extremely useful and basically benign substances on schedules and lists because they might be popular for that one step in making meth. This does not mean questions about such substances are bad, even without context. However a little context couldn't hurt these questions, especially if the questions are on the pseudoephedrine end of a list rather than the acetone end (acetone is a DEA List II precursor, weird!) and as such people should feel free to request clarification.

'Cool Chemist' questions

'Cool chemists' can be divided into two categories - the 'less cool' ask questions about dangerous or fishy chemistry out of purely idle interest, and the 'cooler' actually attempt it. A decision to moderate should be tempered by the academic interest of the question (say, a question about the reaction kinetics of an explosion vs. 'will TATP explode if I hit it with a hammer?') as well as the achievability of the proposal (there was an odd discussion on phys.se about whether a question on nuclear bomb implosion trigger design should be closed.)

Questions about working with intrinsically hazardous substances, reactions and practices

Should be potentially tagged or annotated in the body of the question as such by either the asker or a mod. If we can get custom tags or other annotations that are boldly coloured or have little DOT HAZMAT icons on them, that would be cool. At one point TeX.SE was debating the inclusion of 'worst-practice' and 'don't-do-this' metatags but decided against it as it represented a potentially socially caustic value judgement, however I think that in some circumstances such tags would work quite well.

Non-preparative questions about hazardous or scheduled substances

Questions about (for instance) why explosives explode and how toxins or illicit substances act on the body should be fine.

  • $\begingroup$ On that note: "SWIM" questions are a good sign that fishiness is afoot. On the other hand, we shouldn't always to have to turn comment threads under questions into inquisitions, methinks... $\endgroup$
    – user95
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 8:06
  • $\begingroup$ @J.M. - Sorry, could you please clarify the meaning of 'SWIM'? And yes, I agree: the reason why I broke the answer into so many boxes is to highlight that there are lots of perfectly harmless reasons why people may ask questions about these substances and as such a decision to non-confrontationally ask for clarification or moderate a question should be informed by that. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ "SWIM" - "someone who isn't me". It's a holdover from a certain old site that catered to the discussion of psychoactives... $\endgroup$
    – user95
    Commented Apr 26, 2012 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ Breaking up the answer into several blocks was/is very reasonable. As you've correctly stated, it's pretty easy (nowadays) to enter the realm of controlled substances for perfectly legitimate reasons; such as the synthesis of di- or tetrahydroisoquinolines or research involving the decarboxylation of phenylacetic acids. $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardTerrett On a similar head I ran into this question: "What are some good solutions for non-cryogenic liquid rocket propellant?" Noone wants to answer this amateur 'rocket scientist' as any answer will lead to (as one commenter put it) a binary bomb mixture. $\endgroup$
    – Rampallian
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 16:28

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